Dan Banik and Nanjala Nyabola discuss why the world order has become hostile to human mobility and what travel tells us about our sense of self, of home, of belonging and identity.
Nanjala Nyabola, the Kenya-based writer, advocate, activist and political analyst has written a wonderful new book titled "Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a life on the move”. She explore show travel and migration reveal numerous aspects of race, identity politics and culture and why the world order has become hostile to human mobility. In this beautifully written book, Nanjala tackles several important questions: What are the joys and pains of holidays for people of colour, when guidebooks are never written with them in mind? How are black lives today impacted by the othering legacy of colonial cultures and policies? And what can travel tell us about our sense of self, of home, of belonging and identity?
Professor Dan Banik, University of Oslo, Twitter: @danbanik @GlobalDevPod
Banik: Nanjala, it’s so wonderful to see you today, welcome to the show.
Nyabola: Thank you, it’s good to be here.
Banik: You’ve written this wonderful book “Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move”, and I find it fascinating, you know, how you write about travel, migration, race, identity politics, culture, and I know you have just arrived in Geneva at a time when the EU has introduced a whole new set of travel restrictions from the African continent. Many African citizens are absolutely furious, I have been reading on social media, furious with these measures, I am sure you are too. So before, Nanjala, we discussed your experiences in a pre-covid era, how has this most recent travel experience to Europe been for you?
Nyabola: Well, this is the first time I have been in Europe since before the pandemic, so a lot of countries, European countries, but also, I think, people don’t necessarily realise that the United States as well had stopped processing tourist visas, or short term visas. I mean, I personally had no reason to be in Europe during the pandemic, there was no great incentive to be there, but even if I had wanted to be there. There was a long period of time when European countries were not processing visas, and so, I was one of the first people, I think, after they reopened in October to go into request a visa, and of course that was very interesting because you are normally one of many, the lines were very short which was very interesting. I mean the thing that strikes me the most about being in Europe right now, is that I am just not sure that ordinary European people are taking this disease as seriously as people are in other parts of the world. I just don’t get that sense of urgency, and I guess it’s how relative privilege insulates people form the realities of how extreme… You know the weekend before I got here there were very violent protests against corona virus measures in Germany and the Netherlands and Austria I believe, there was one more country, and I walked out of the airport and half the people didn’t have masks on, including people who work in the service sector, taxi driver didn’t have a mask on, you know, you can’t take a taxi in Nairobi without a mask, you can’t enter public transport in Nairobi without a mask. I mean, partly it is the transport companies that have made it mandatory for both the drivers and the passengers. And then it is also just partly the overarching anxiety about the disease, that if you walk through… it is not a hundred percent, of course, it is not universal, but you couldn’t walk through the Nairobi international airport and have as few people wearing masks as I saw in Zurich or at the train station. So there is definitely this disparity in, I would say, conciseness, and this is a huge anecdotal thing, it’s obviously not a universal thing, but that’s the one thing I have been really conscious of. Yesterday I went to a restaurant to try to get a cup of tea, and only the people who were buying take away of course have their masks on, and of course it’s a restaurant and everyone is eating and that happens everywhere, but when you think about what winter means and how much time people are about to spend indoors, you really realize that this thing isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
Banik: So, you know, that is also my experience, actually, you know, I travelled from Norway to India a month ago and in Norway of course we weren’t using masks, now things are getting bad again. So when I arrived in Delhi or actually on the plane, you now, it was a whole different ballgame altogether, the airports and throughout India people are wearing masks everywhere, even in the hotels, so the only time you don’t use a mask is in the hotel room. So I share some of that, you know I can vouch for this, this is not anecdotal anymore, it appears to me that people are taking this much more seriously in other parts of the world than in Europe or the United States.
Banik: And what is interesting about this is that we tend to think in Europe that, you know, we have got everything under control and that there are all of these red-list countries where all the bad stuff is coming from, but when I come here I actually feel much more reassured of being here than being back home.
Nyabola: And I’ll tell you this, I had a very long conversation with the people at the conference, Swiss and German and we were talking, they were asking about the… there is a German newspaper that did a feature and they called the feature “the African miracle”, and they were asking, you know, why is that the numbers in Africa were low, and I think there is this expectation that when disease happens that poor counties will suffer more. And that is a, partly it is a popular culture trope, you know, when you look at all the movies that are made about mass disease, contagion, you know, all of these films, the disease always comes from a random corner of Africa and then spreads to the other parts of the world, and I think there is this consciousness that has been very quietly embedded in the public in the west that that’s how diseased operate. And so there is, we were having this conversation and I was saying, you know, it sounds like this article was looking for some kind of miracle. And the reality as I experienced it is that most of us are just very scared of getting sick. Because if you get sick in Kenya, there isn’t this massive public health infrastructure that is going to save your life. Best case scenario when you come out of the hospital, you are stuck with a 20 000 dollar bill, if you come out of the, and that is the best case scenario. Worst case scenario: you pass and you leave your family with a 20 000 dollar bill in a country where minimum wage is 50 dollars a month. So there is an overarching anxiety around illness that is very difficult to capture with the common tools of political science, of economics, of all of these social sciences. But I think people who work in humanities more broadly are… I saw an article that captured it really well, the hubris, there is a hubris that is embedded in public consciousness that is making it difficult to fight this disease in the west. There is this idea that illness is something that happens “over there” and not over here, and so, and if something goes wrong the state will come through for me. And I’ll tell you, for us in Kenya, I am a millennial, you know born in the 80s and mid-80s, and I remember the surviving of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. There was a time in the 90s where one in every ten Kenyans hand HIV/AIDS. The last pandemic is still very fresh on our minds as a generation, and so we have a public health infrastructure that is built on the back of addressing a pandemic. Its HIV/AIDS investments that led to community health workers, and radio awareness campaigns that can be deployed in a matter of hours that is… posters can be printed and distributed to the most remote corners of the country overnight. You see these pictures of community health workers on the Congo crossing rivers on rafts to make sure that people get vaccinated against polio. People underestimate the impact of what going without has done to many of these countries. And so they underestimate the, I don’t want to say resilience because I think resilience is kind of a dirty word these days, but they just really underestimate how much these things matter. And so, we were, as I said, you know I was talking to these people and I said to them, you know, we had our first case in April, the first week of April, last week of march 2020, and by April 15th there were public health awareness messages about the corona virus, many crowd source, many done for free, in at least 20 of the 44 languages spoken in Kenya. We… the speed of which the community health mechanisms, which are not, you know, it’s not hospital, it’s not, you know, it’s not ICUs, it’s not whatever, it’s really preventative. The speed at which the preventative mechanisms kicked in was outstanding. We didn’t have six month of debate over masks. We didn’t have six months of debate over, you know, should we close the restaurants because most of us don’t eat at restaurants. So I think it is those contextual things that matter a great deal, and I think that the public consciousness in the west is struggling to understand that in a disease where behaviour matters, where peoples decision making as an individual and as a group matters, it is not just about having the best hospitals, it is also about that consciousness and those behavioural choices, and that is one thing that African countries, that Asian countries is, you know, eventually of course we had a bit of a stumbling block in India, but eventually people are looking around, and they are saying ‘hey, I can’t control the cost of hospital and I can’t control all of that stuff, the only thing I can control is, let me put this little piece of cloth over my nose and mouth and hope for the best’. And I think that’s it. I really do think it’s more important than people realise.
Banik: So I think it’s really important to make people all over the world aware that there are actually things that work on the African continent, that work in Asia. I remember in February 2020 when, you know, there was, these news started to really make their rounds, I was visiting Malawi, a country that I know relatively well, and I was so impressed that as soon as I got of the aircraft and before we could get into the terminal building, there was this bucket with chlorinated water and there was, you know, a form that we had to fill out, you know, trying to figure out where we had been. None of this was in place when I arrived back home in Oslo three or four weeks later. So, I was so impressed that a country that is often associated with poverty and deprivation and all the bad things, was doing so well, whereas in Norway we were treating it, you know, not as seriously as we should. So, I think there is definitely a case, and I was hoping that in the year and a half that we’ve been all living in the pandemic that there would be greater appreciation for what actually has been possible in countries with limited resources with virtually no vaccines available, and the very fact that the pandemic was kept under control speaks volumes, as you say, for the people who live there. And this fear, right, that I’ve got to look after myself and that actually is a wonderful thing that we can’t take for granted in other parts of the world.
Nyabola: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think, just to give another anecdotal example, a couple of months ago I was riding my motorcycle in northern Kenya, the most remote parts of the country, about, I mean there are places, small towns that are not even on the map. You have to orient yourself by asking every couple of hundred meters ‘is this the correct road to get to this town’. No phone signal, no nothing. And I get to this town on the Lake Moita. Moita is basically a cluster of huts, it’s a cluster of about 20 huts of which about six are what the South-Africans would call spaza shops, like these general kiosks that sell everything, you know, wheel barrows and bread and everything, and every single one of those six shops had a hand washing station outside, poster on the door about the corona virus in the local language Turkana with illustrations, sort of showing, you know, a very basic schema of the disease, how it works and then also what you need to do to protect yourself. When we arrived we were looking for drinking water so we went to the spazas, and before the woman would open the door she says, in traditional Turkana, by the way, with the beads and whatever, she said ‘wash your hands before I can sell you this bottle of water’. Contrast with walking into a coffee shop in Zurich yesterday, and the guy who was selling me the coffee didn’t have a mask on, there was no hand sanitizer, as I said, the coffee shop was full of people, doors locked, obviously because of the heating, and nobody is wearing a mask, except the six of us who are buying takeout, and the restaurant is full to the brim. Of those two countries you would, context, you would think that it was the Turkana people who had the higher instances of covid-19, right. You would assume that people who are taking more precautions are the people who have higher numbers, and of course it’s not. Because the numbers in this part of the world are out of control. We are talking about the fifth wave being on the doorstep of Western Europe, and so, you know, I think what’s really missing in a lot of these conversations around this, what has been missing from the western side, sort of, looking at the developing world is the assumption that poor people have no agency. Poor countries have no agency, that when disaster happens there is a helplessness, and so the paradigm is that we must respond from a perspective of aiding the helpless.
Banik: That’s the saviour complex.
Nyabola: The saviour mentality. And so people are really struggling, I think, policy makers are really struggling with the fact that no one in Africa, no one in Asia is asking to be saved, we are asking for solidarity. We are asking for all of these man made obstacles, to fair distribution of medicines to be taken out, so that we can have a fair shot. But in the absence of that fair shot we cannot underestimate the agency of people who are operating in constraint circumstances. The creativity, the community, the, you know, thinking, it’s like, it’s beyond survival thinking how do I build around this constrained circumstances. And I think it’s so important that we always remember and elevates the instances of agency. The people who are sewing masks, you know, out of scrap fabric, the tailors who are voluntarily sewing masks out of scrap fabric, the people who are putting hand washing stations at bus stations, ‘you can’t get on this bus until you wash your hands and put your mask on’. That’s agency and it operates on aggregate, all these small individual actions on aggregate, having this tangible effect on the trajectory of this disease in many places in the world which we are expected to implode.
Banik: There is often this tendency, even now, to undermine agency, to treat African countries, Latin America, some parts of Asia as just, you know, there is no hope, we need to save them and it’s all about money and the selfishness that the west really… I had hoped that things would change, but you know, we are taking about booster doses and what not, when people haven’t really received their first dose in many parts of the world. Nanjala, let’s go back to the book, and of course you write about how, you know, these travel books that we often buy, the lonely planets and the rough guides or whatever, they are meant for a totally different audience, right, they are not necessarily meant for everybody, and of course you’ve argued, I suppose, previously that the role of travel books are actually meant for white people. Let’s go back to what you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, how some of the problems, or the challenges begin when one tries to apply for a visa. Because that itself is an experience that many people in Europe and the United States are not accustomed to, right, so you go into this office and you have to furnish all of these documents and it is expensive, time consuming, you have to wait in line, and then you have some, the visa officer asking all kinds of invasive questions, and it is a humiliation, as I have experienced when I have travelled on an Indian passport before, and I know how privileged I am that I have a Norwegian passport, but I remember how it felt very humiliating to not wait in line as much as just being treated with suspicion. So, what are your thoughts there, Nanjala, of this whole visa process, this method of making sure that, you know, all the documents are right, and you have enough money, and only then can you get the stamp of approval to travel.
Nyabola: You know, actually I think it’s very connected with the pandemic. Because for me, personally, that’s the anxiety that I have is that the epistemology of the visa process, as applied to poor countries is one that is about how do we stop these people who are going to try and sneak into our country and disappear forever, and steal our benefits, how do we stop them from doing that, that’s the thinking behind the thinking. All of these processes are designed, first of all, to weed out the unworthy, to scrutinize, to weed out the unworthy and then to catch people who have the appearance of worthiness in what they think is a lie or a misrepresentation of their worthiness. And that is the ritual humiliation, that’s the, the fact that you have to open yourself up and vomit all the contents of your life to this visa official who doesn’t know anything about you, really, beyond what’s represented on the paper beyond the calculation, and now, more than ever, it’s machines, right, the first stage of scrutiny now is done by machines and by AI, and the AI is programmed on the biases of the people who, you know, fed it the first information, so you get people who are super eligible having their applications denied on, and the embassy, the Australian embassy, is not able to explain why they did that.
Banik: Can you explain that, I am not familiar with this new procedure.
Nyabola: Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the ones that are leading this that, for now, the first steps of application, once you fit in your data, it’s done by AI, it’s done by a computer. And then that kind of screens out the first step.
Banik: While you are logged on to the website?
Nyabola: No, you fill it and you submit it and then its processed and there you get an invitation for an interview or your get rejection. And the numbers I put in the book were for student visa applications because those were the once they had to make publicly available. The average Canadian visa rejection rate, global average, is 39 percent. The average for Africa is 79 percent. There are three countries in Africa that have had a 100 percent rejection rate, every single student visa that came from Mozambique, from Somalia, I think from Sudan, but I have to check that third one, every single one in 2019 was rejected. Every last one. So that is a reflection that the data that is put in that system is looking to weed Africans out. That is a huge… 39-79, that is a huge discrepancy, that is a huge difference. The interesting thing is, it’s for me it’s revelatory, right, who do they think is going to, you know, disappear into Canada. The number of Europeans who are in north America right now on invalid travel documents, I think, I saw this in the New York Times, there was about 3000, 3000 documented cases, there are so many undocumented Europeans who go to the United States, especially, on these EST.A. Visas and then they overstay. The government is well aware of it. By the time an African, an Indian, Latin American shows up at the airport on a plane with a visa and a stamp the U.S. government has scrutinized just about every single aspect of their life. They know who their father is, who their mother is, their ID dumber, how much money they have in the bank, where they have been in the last 10 years, but the time they show up at that border, they have done all of that stuff. Whereas Europeans will just, kind of, show up and answer a few questions and go into the country on trust that they will leave at the end of their six months, three months, which many people simply do not. So there is that presumption that’s loaded in there, that I really wanted to draw attention to because I think when Europeans, when people with western passports come to Kenya, especially, but Africa in general, they like to say ‘oh, but I had to pay 50 dollars at the border, and I had to fill in a from’, and I’m like, ‘oh, you had to fill in a form? I had to fill in 19 pages worth of forms’. And I had to go to the bank and have them verify my statements, and I had to provide passports, every single passport that I had, and I have to keep a spread sheet that tracks every single country that I go to, because every time I have to renew my visa I have to answer that question ‘name the countries you have been to in the last 10 years’. I have been to 73 countries. So, you know, there is this attitude that because the form of the visa looks the same, it is a stamp in your passport, people, especially who have the privilege, don’t understand that it’s not just about form, it’s the context in which the processes are done. And I remember, the part that really prompted me to write that particular essay was my own personal experience, which is what I started off the chapter with, but also, when you sit in these visa rooms, and as you said there is this immigration official behind this glass, and there was this woman, I remember, she was an older woman, she was there with her son and she wanted to go to the U.S. to be with her daughter who was having a child, her first child, and we have this tradition where your mother stays with you for the first 90 days, kind of teach you how to take care of your baby, and she wanted to go, and the way the interview room is set up, the lady behind the bullet proof glass shouts at you from the other side of the glass.
Nyabola: And I just remember seeing this older woman, I see her face crumble, when the lady shouted ‘I am not going to give you this visa because I don’t believe that if you go to the United States that you are going to come back’. And, just seeing this grandmother, and I thought, she is clearly in her 70s or in her 80s, what do you think she is going to do? Steal health care? You don’t have health care. So what do you think she is going to do? And these are the things that any bureaucratic analysis of paper work doesn’t capture. You could have the best system on paper and say, it’s only a six page form, how does the person who is administering the form talk to the people who are submitting?
Banik: Let me share a story with you, many years ago when my wife and I were just newly married I was teaching in Vietnam and my wife came along, and in Vietnam we both needed visas, she is Norwegian and I had then an Indian passport, so that was fine, and then we decided to visit Thailand on our way back and I knew, like you, from previous experience that Indians at that time, this is, I don’t know 2003-2004, needed visas, so even contacted the Thai embassy in Oslo, they said ‘no no no, you will get in on arrival’. So I land up in Bangkok airport with my wife, and we go through one of these immigration checkpoints, they take her passport and she is waved through. With me, they stop me and say no, you have to go to a different line. So we are separated, she is just waiting for me and has no idea what’s going on, and then I am there with all the unwanted people, and I had to pay a 1000 baht and the,
Banik: and, well my wife of course, she didn’t have to pay anything, it was free. So I had to pay a 1000 baht, and then the passport, after half an hour just, like thrown back at me, and then I am allowed to enter this beautiful country, I love Thailand, and I shouldn’t say anything bad about it, but that process itself was quite illustrative and important for this relationship I have with my wife, we are still married, I still love her, but she didn’t understand then what it meant to travel on a non-European passport. It was that day, I think, my wife realised the trials and tribulations that one has to go through when you have certain passports. And this is something I wanted to talk to you about too, you know, the power of the African passport, having travelled to as many countries as you have, Nanjala, where do you feel most welcome with a Kenyan passport?
Nyabola: I mean, a 100 percent in Africa. And I say that knowing full well that that is also relative, because we also of course have discrepancies between each other, right. So on the continent, a Kenyan passport will actually get you pretty far. An Ethiopian passport, not so much. We are right next door to each other, and for the longest time Kenyans were the only people who were allowed to go into Ethiopia without a visa because Ethiopia was very reciprocal, and so when they, when other countries put visa restrictions on Ethiopians, Ethiopians put restrictions on them. There is a thing that happens whereby once the stigma, you know, this thing that I said about the thinking behind the thinking becomes normalized in western countries, it’s like contagion, it spreads and then poor countries starts to apply it onto each other. I mean I had a really difficult time getting an Indian visa when I went to India. And it was, there were places that I was not allowed to go, it was a long list of places that my visa said you are not allowed to go.
Banik: Yeah, I think that applies for all foreigners, I suppose, there’s sort of sensitive areas.
Nyabola: Yeah, you know, and so there is that, it’s not, poor countries do it to each other, there is no like idyll for a lot of people. But with a Kenyan passport I can pretty much go anywhere south of the equator, except South Africa. And that is that imbalance that South Africans treat other Africans, have treated other Africans for a long time since 1994, pretty shabbily in terms of access.
Banik: So do you need a visa to go to South Africa?
Nyabola: Oh yeah.
Banik: That you get on arrival, or?
Nyabola: No, no, no, you have to get it in advance, pay, you have to do the whole thing with the passports and the bank statements and the letters of invitation and where are you staying and if you are staying with a friend they have to provide their ID card and they have to provide their, all of that information. The South African visa is notoriously difficult, even worse than some, maybe not European countries, but certainly Latin American countries. Latin America is the most difficult in terms of they, you apply and they send your paper work to the capital and so you have to wait six weeks and you have to get a letter from the police clearing you. For Ecuador you have to get a letter from the police, even if you are going on a tourist visa, you have to get a letter from the police clearing you, you have to get all this extra paper work. So in terms of procedurally, the Latin American is the most difficult in terms of humiliation and all of these extra bureaucracies, the western, Canada, Australia, New Zealand are the most difficult. Even the United States feels easy compared to New Zealand and Australia. But in Africa and in the Caribbean, with Kenyan passports, it’s really, you, it’s not just that you can get in, it is that people are happy to see you. It’s that, you know, when were at the border of Haiti, the guy was happy, he was like ‘oh my god, there are so many Kenyans here, this is so great, welcome’, and you know, obviously visa is free, so you just get a stamp and lets you in.
Banik: I hate coming to a country and, you know, trying to figure out how I am going to get a taxi and even though you are returning home, even a country that you have been before, you are always a bit anxious, you are tired and you haven’t slept well, and you’re like, the best thing that can happen is to have a smiling face, to welcome you back. My wife never picks me up at the airport when I return home, I always pick her up, I think that’s a bit unfair. So, sometimes, you know, when I visit certain countries, like India is a great place, if you stay at a particular hotel they sometimes pick you up and, you know, there is somebody who you, if you’ve been travelling quite often, there is somebody you know, and that’s the best feeling, you know.
Nyabola: It is.
Banik: And they recognize you and you don’t have to think, you are not worried, you somehow escaped through this strict immigration regime, they have stamped you, you are good to go, and then somebody is there with welcoming arms, that is the best feeling.
Nyabola: Well, I don’t get picked up from the airport mostly because I don’t like being at airports, I find them, especially with the pandemic, I just find them dirty. I’m obsessive about, like, washing my hands and stuff when I’m at the airport, so I like to be in and out as quickly as possible. I don’t even check in bags if I can avoid it, I just want to be in and out of the airport very quickly.
Banik: That’s the sign of a professional traveller, you travel light.
Nyabola: Yeah, listen, I can pack for six weeks in 25 minutes and I won’t forget anything, there is like a method to the madness and…
Banik: You need to teach me, my friend.
Nyabola: I could! But what I was going to say is that one of the challenges is that the attitude of immigration officers will also then set the tone for then how you are going to experience that country.
Nyabola: And they are people who will treat you with suspicion just because you show up with a certain passport and the condescension, and one of the great ironies for me, as a Kenyan, is that Kenyan immigration officials and the Kenyan people at the airport can be worse with Kenyans than they are with other people.
Banik: Yeah, they never ask me anything.
Nyabola: Well, let me tell you, the thing is, they do this thing where for example they’ll serve the people who are on the tourist line before they serve people who are in the Kenyan line, and we’re just supposed to wait.
Banik: I see.
Nyabola: We have this thing we call the “sahani ya wageni” mentality, which is that, the literal translation is that, you know when some people save their best plates for visitors, so they eat on terrible cutlery and they save their best for guests, that’s the mentality that pervades the travel sector in Kenya in all shades, even in the hotels and things like that, so, that can be frustrating, you are standing in line and they are processing all these visas and we’re saying excuse me. This would never happen the other way around. In the U.S. I can’t imagine the U.S. coming to process, you know, visa people before they process Americans at the border. So there is that double standard, and a lot of the governments now are offshoring their first level of scrutiny, border scrutiny, to these third countries and to low waged, I don’t even know what to call them. So like if you are flying to Paris, you know, you’re flying Air France to Paris, and you enter the airport after you’ve had your covid documents checked, there are two people who work for this company called Swissport who will take your passports, check your visa, check all the things and ask you where you are going, what it is you are going to do, and I remember they asked me, and I looked at them and I said ‘excuse me, you are not an immigration official, you are not empowered to ask me that’, and she got embarrassed and she gave me back my passport because I don’t think they are accustomed to being challenged. And this is before you’ve even gotten to the check-in desk. This is for them to allow you to stand in line to get to the check-in desk. And then when you get in the check-in desk, the cabin crew, the airline ground staff is going to ask you the same questions again. This is before you’ve even interacted with a single French official. This process has been happening, it will happen in Abidjan if you’re flying Air France in Abidjan, it will happen in all of these places, there is a quiet offshoring that has happened where the frontline of European borders is being exported to poor countries through the airlines, because the airlines don’t want to get fined. By the time I got to the desk, right, where I’m getting to board, my passport had been checked five times. Five times. In JKIA, which is not even the biggest airport in East Africa, forget Africa, it’s not even the biggest airport in East Africa, my passport had been checked five times and every single person who had done those checks were Kenyan. This dynamic is becoming incredibly common. The exportation of European borders, and somehow these people who are on these low wage jobs are more intense with scrutineering their countrymen than even the European border people are. And this is a dynamic that I think people who are studying travel, and who are thinking about borders really need to lean into, the exportation, or the, what do they call it, the projection of European borders, especially fortress Europe to poor countries.
Banik: This started, I think, the Americans started this in Canada.
Nyabola: They did.
Banik: You know, because like when you fly to the US from Canada you do immigration on Canadian soil. And that always bugged me, it was like, you know, and if I had been Canadian I would have been upset, so, and I understand all the reasons for, you know, making it a smooth experience so that as soon as you land you can just, you know, exit, I understand all of this. But it is a bit unnerving that somebody else is doing this in another country.
Nyabola: Yeah, and like when you, I remember when we were going to Tunisia for a conference, there was a big tech conference, and we had to, you can’t fly from Nairobi to Tunisia directly, you have to through Europe or you have to go through the Gulf. So I flew through Paris and we were coming out of the gangway before you even get out, you know the tube, before you even get to the end there was a immigration official at the end of the border asking you ‘where are you going, what are you doing’, and you know, again, you know, having studied, I challenged and I said ‘excuse me, I am only connecting, I am not entering Paris, you are not Tunisia immigration, you are not supposed to ask me these questions’, and she waved me though. The Kiswahili word we use is ‘kubahatisha’, it’s ‘she is trying’. She is trying because they’ve been told they are trying, but they know, there is no legal basis for extra territorial visa scrutiny being done on these third countries and in these second countries, there is no legal basis for it. People tend to comply because they don’t want any trouble and travel is stressful enough, and fair enough. But the fact that it has been normalized, so quickly, that the American government is asking Canada to check your visa in Ottawa, that the French government is asking Kenyans to check your visa in Nairobi before they even let you out of the plane, and there isn’t an outcry, there isn’t a pushback, these are the things that make me very anxious when I think about travel restrictions related to the corona virus. We accept so many of these things unquestioningly, and they are reshaping the world. They are changing the reality of many people’s lives in very palpable ways.
Banik: This reminds me of the time, again, when I used to have an Indian passport, and I was teaching in Oslo, and I had this residence permit where it said my occupation, and it said Senior Researcher. And, by the way, during those days, you could just wave a red Norwegian passport at immigration and just say the word ‘norsk’, which means Norwegian, and they wouldn’t even stop you. And I found this fascinating because you had to pronounce it properly, you had to look Norwegian to actually you know, pass this test. So in my case, of course, this guy is looking at my passport and I’m sure you’ve seen there are some officials, they keep looking, they flip through every page, and I’m wondering what are they trying to look at, and so, you know, talk to me, ask me. So anyway, this guy was looking at my residence permit and he was saying, so, ‘what’s the difference between a junior and a senior researcher?’, so I said you know, you need a PhD and stuff like that. And then he is still not convinced, he is saying, and this, I used to live in Norway then, he is saying ‘so, what do you do?’, and I don’t know if this happens to you Nanjala, but sometimes, you know, when I’m being pushed like this in a corner, I become extremely arrogant, so I said something like, and I’m actually quite proud of it, I said ‘I educate Norwegians’.
Nyabola: Oh, that’s a good one.
Banik: And this guy was just, he just stabbed me, and had nothing to say.
Nyabola: I love that, I’m going to try that, or well, let’s see, maybe I won’t try it.
Banik: Well I mean, I did, I was teaching, I was educating and I wasn’t lying. This is just something that has to stop. I think we really need to teach people how to communicate, how to approach and to treat people with respect rather than this suspicion that everybody is trying to come and cheat you and rob you and take your jobs away. And this starts at the immigration, sort of process, when you are applying for a visa in your home country and then you are met with this very grumpy official at the entry point to a country. But I wanted to also move our discussion towards how it is for you, for me, for many others when we actually have made it through all of these check points, and we have arrived in a country, and you know, you’ve been to India, and I’ve heard about your experiences of visiting the Qutab Minar in Delhi, where you know, there were all these school kids who surrounded you and I wanted to ask you about this experience because, I know this can be, you know, upsetting, in many ways, because as a traveller from a distant country, coming to a new culture, one isn’t always certain, right, whether people are curious or whether they are, they hold certain attitudes, they treat you, they see you differently. How do you cope with that? Because I’ve often found that, you know, my own family, my kids, my oldest who is more light skinned, had blond hair when he was younger, he was often taken photographs of at Indian airports, against his wishes, and he felt that that was weird, you know, there was no privacy. So how have you tackled these rather uncomfortable situations?
Nyabola: It’s not easy. It is something that I have to keep telling myself to give people grace. Going to south Asia is not always very easy for me, I’ve been to Nepal, I’ve been to India, and it’s really just not very easy to be the object of fascination, and to be objectified in that way. I think the difficulty for me with Delhi was, as you said, making that distinction, who is curious, who are these school kids who are curious and who is really treating me like an object. And I struggled, I am not going to lie, it was very difficult for me, even though I was with friends I had a very hard time, and for me a big part of travel, you know, is being able to experience the rhythms of a place and sort of walk around and take pictures and to really be in the rhythms of the place, and I couldn’t do that in India, in Delhi I couldn’t do it. The cameras in my face, the guy who followed me with his video phone, we were at Jamma Masjid and he followed me for almost 20 minutes as we were walking through Gamma masjid with a camera, a video camera recording me, and it was weird.
Banik: And you don’t know when to be dismissive, you want to be arrogant, you want to tell people off, or when it is genuine curiosity, you don’t want to seem unfriendly, right.
Nyabola: I think that, so I’ve been to a lot of places where I’ve been the first black person that many people have encountered,
Banik: Like a village in the Czech Republic.
Nyabola: Like this village in the Czech Republic. And my friend, who is a Chinese friend, who is the first Chinese person that a lot of people had experienced. And I can tell you that that energy was completely different from, you know, being on the subway in New York. That person saying something racist on the subway in New York, that’s not curiosity, there is no reason, I am not the only black person on this subway, I am not the first black person in New York, that’s racism clear-cut and dry. It is this little in between category, what is it that makes me fascinating to you? It’s not humanity, there is something else happening there that is much more difficult to parse through. And my friends give me a hard time because they think that I am too generous.
Banik: Or you mean you are too polite?
Nyabola: I am too, not even just too polite, I’m too generous with the way that I, I am definitely not too polite, but that I am too generous with the way that I interpret people’s behaviour, that I am always like giving people the benefit of the doubt, that you know, he has probably never seen an African before and that’s fine. And I think my friends give me a hard time because they are like, well that was racist.
Banik: Well, I don’t like anybody staring at me, wherever, you know, it’s just this...
Nyabola: Well, it can be, the staring is one thing, it’s people touching your hair without permission, it’s people getting into your personal space, it’s being recorded without your permission, it’s being followed, it’s being, you know, the staring would be one thing, but it’s the physical interactions that I find the most unnerving, and getting in your personal space. And you know, when a child does it, it’s one thing, I was, I remember I was at a protest at standing rock a couple of years ago, and I was on the reservation, the Standing Rock reservation and we were having a circle, you know, where people were talking about their different experiences of environmental injustice, and I was of course the only African person at this protest, and this wonderful young lady was sitting next to me, she had a baby, her daughter on her lap, a six year old, and the daughter whispered something in the mothers air and the mother said, you know, go ask her, ask her, and I said you know, you can ask me, and the daughter says, you know, where are you from, I said I’m from Kenya, and she goes I don’t know where that is, and I said, well it’s in Africa, and her eyes just kind of like grew, she was like ‘you’re from Africa?’, and I said ‘yes I’m from Africa’, she goes ‘oh my god, I’ve never met anyone from Africa’, and she says, you know, ‘can I touch your hair’, and I said of course yes you can, and she touched my hair and said ‘ is it curly’, and I said ‘ yes, it’s curl’. And we had this little interaction, very innocent interaction, and at the end of it the mother says ‘thank you so much for answering her questions, we’ve never left the reservation and I’d never though in my entire life that I would ever meet anybody from Africa’. Completely different experience, right. Because you have to give room for those kinds of experiences because we live in a big world and there are people for whom, this thing that we do that we get on a plane and we go to another country and we learn how to say hello and goodbye and eat the food, it’s completely beyond the realm of comprehension. And that’s why I’d like to give people a little bit of grace, because I think, you know, the world is very big. And I think that, you know, we have to be able to parse through some of this murky stuff, that, sometimes it is just misguided curiosity, and, but then sometimes it is really straight up racism for people who have consumed popular culture that portrays, especially black people, but more generally like the other in very vulgar and stereotypical and violent ways.
Banik: I think it is far worse for some countries and their citizens that there are for others, but again, referring to the example of my wife, Nanjala, we were in, travelling in India again in, 25 years ago, and in a particular northern Indian city, shop keepers along the pavements had the desire of touching our hair while we walked past because it was blond, and so, this happens, and there was this idea that if we went to a liquor store and she was seen there, then..
Nyabola: She was available.
Banik: Yeah, she was of loose character, something of that sort. So there are these ideas of foreigners, black, white, Asian, whatever, that have been created and reinforced that just makes some people feel that they can disrespect somebody because they have done certain things or been seen in a particular place in a particular time.
Nyabola: Yeah, and I’ll tell you what is difficult about being a black woman, is that sometimes you just have to show up. You just have to be present in that place for those assumptions to follow you. I am, as a solo traveller, backpacking travel, and one of the first things that I learnt how to do when I started backpacking was I had to wear a wedding ring. I had a ring on my ring finger, I am not married, and I have to be quick with answering questions about where my husband is, very quick answering questions about where my husband is because merely showing up in a lot of the world as a black woman, just being present, is enough for people to project these assumptions on you, and it is in all kinds of places. All kinds of places. Whether I am in the united states, whether I am, you know, going through small towns in rural Africa, whether I am going through the airports in certain, you know, there is the fact that I mention in the book about how Nigerian women, the Nigerian women visa application for Thailand, they have to get a letter from their husband or their father verifying that they are not sex workers, just existing as an African woman, as a Nigerian woman, wanting to go to Thailand, you know, when there was this whole wave of lets go to Phuket, let’s go to Bali and Indonesia, let’s go and take pictures, Nigerian women couldn’t participate because of those presumptions. And so, yeah, I mean there is, I think it’s really just how do you parse through, what are the distinctions that we have to make in order to give people grace, but not get people so much grace that we are actually enabling racism. I think that’s the question I was grappling with in some of these essays, like the Nepal essay, that’s really the question that I was grappling with.
Banik: Yeah, so in some situations, Nanjala, I’m sure you’ve been in, like in Haiti, and I’ve been in Malawi, where these categories of race etcetera, they are a bit fluid, so you know on social media I remember last year when I had said something, I had written something on twitter and on Malawi etcetera, I was accused of being white, you know, so and the same thing in terms of when I, if I walk the streets of Blantyre, even though I have Indian origin and I could well be from Malawi, I don’t know how I stick out, and I would have, you know, kids following me asking for money etcetera, which was a relatively new thing, and there I am treated as a foreigner. So, sometimes of course, you know, identity shifts, so whether I’m black, Indian or white depends on the situation that I find myself in. How has it been for you, because in some instances your race, your identity has been an advantage, right?
Nyabola: For me personally I think it’s always great, I love being a black woman. I will say this, a lot of our interrogations of race spend so much time thinking about the experience of the people who are “raced”, who are placed in these categories, and not enough time interrogating the motivations of the people who are doing the categorization. The way in which whiteness orders the world and sorts the world I think is a much more interesting, or could be a much more fruitful exploration than trying to define what it means to be black, because what of course it means to be black varies considerably throughout the world. Sudanese people, I wrote about this in the book, you know, being in Sudan whereby there is an entire group of people who call themselves Arab in Sudan, and everybody else black, and then they go to the Gulf and they are black and they’re not Arab, they will never be Arab. Omar al-Bashir, you know, would call himself Arab and then go to Saudi Arabia and be called black the same racial animus that he would project onto southern Sudanese people. The invention of whiteness is much more potent for understanding racism and unpacking racism than I think the efforts to create a narrative of global blackness would yield. And you think about Brazil, for example, someone just wrote an excellent thread about this. There are many Brazilians who are of mixed heritage who in Brazil would never be counted as black, but who go to the United States and because of the one drop-drop-rule, the extreme whiteness that order society in the United States would be considered black. Barack Obama would not be considered black in Kenya, he is mixed. He would not be considered black in South Africa, he would be coloured, you know, but that is how the one, and so then we think about well what is the politics of the one-drop-rule? Why was whiteness so extreme in the United States? Why do these blurred categories, you know, exist in other societies? And I think that is kind of the invitation I was leaving on the table, is that whiteness is not necessarily about phenotypical distinctions, it’s not about the colour of your skin per se, there is a political project that is embedded in that that I think we need to pay a little bit more attention to before we embrace it, even if we are speaking against it, if you are using it as a construct you are reifying its meaning, and I think before we do that we need to unpack that. And that Haiti essay was really an example of how weird this thing can be. Because I’m not Barack Obama, I’m not half-half, there is no ambiguity about the colour of my skin and the curl of my hair, but there is this politics of privilege that is loaded into the construct that people are wielding, you know, in a very specific social context because of the relationship that Haitians, for example, have with the Dominican Republic which with whom they share an island, and the fact that most of the descendants of the Dominican Republic are Latin or, you know, half Spanish, and Haitians they are black, the Haitian side of Hispaniola they are black, so there is a dynamic of race there that is flowing around that island that the political import of whiteness has very specific implications. And, you know, it is not an easy conversation to have because I think that there is this desire to articulate liberation discourse that flips whiteness on its head and that challenges it and antagonises it, and I think there is, you feel that momentum right now, there is the thread that unites the politics that allow people to be held in cages in the Mexico border, US border, and to die in the Mediterranean sea and to die in the South Pacific, and that is the narrative of the politics of whiteness, border, than leaving people to die. However, you know, the people who are on the Mexican border are, you know, Latin American and we have Africans and Arabs and, you know, people from the Gulf in the Mediterranean sea, and we have people from Myanmar and from Bangladesh, whatever, dying in the south Asian sea. So what will the liberation discourse look like? Is it about constructing a unitary idea of blackness that subsumes all of these differences and, you know, fills it with something different? Or is it really about flipping the lens back and interrogating what it is about political whiteness that normalizes this kind of cruelty and makes it tolerable or acceptable in bureaucratic terms as long as the paper work is correct? Those are some of the difficult questions that I wanted to put on the table because I, and you know using yourself as the story is very difficult, but because I had experienced this, because I really, I was in Haiti as myself and I was being called black, it is like, it is not about race, it is something that you are reaching towards that is important to think about. You know, when I go to Sudan and I see black skinned people distinguish themselves as Arab, there is something there that people are trying to reach towards that I think, well, South Africans, you know coloured people distinguish themselves from black people who are bureaucratically distinguished by the apartheid state. There is something there that needs to be unpacked and I am not sure that trying to develop a universal narrative of what it means to be black is going to give us the liberation that we need if we don’t give ourselves the time to stop and interrogate what the political projects of whiteness is and what it does to the way the world is ordered.
Banik: Nanjala, congrats on this absolutely brilliant book, beautifully written. I want to keep chatting with you, but I have to let you go, I know you tired, you’ve been travelling. Thank you so much for coming on my show, I’ve had such a blast.
Nyabola: Thank you for having me, it’s been great to connect.